It’s 11:06 pm and the first night that I forget to turn on my do-not-disturb feature.
A text message slips through.
It’s Tammy. She’s a younger first cousin that knows more about me than I would like anyone to know. She’s seen all of me: Brooklyn, barefoot, loud-mouthed, nerdy, and bossy me. She checks on me after brain surgery and breakups.
She writes, “Watch ‘See You Yesterday’ on Netflix.”
She’s talking about the new Netflix film by Stefon Bristol, Spike Lee, and Fredrica Bailey.
I laugh and tell her, “I’ve been on that!”
Suddenly, my eyes are filled with tears.
I’m laughing and crying all at once. My boyfriend watches this unfold and expresses concern, “Are you okay, babe?”
I turn to him, “Remember when I said that ‘See You Yesterday’ was the movie that Tammy needed?”
“She’s watching it right now. She thinks she should put me on to it, because it’s afrofuturism and Brooklyn. That’s all me. But I wanted to put her on, because I see so much of her in this film.”
Bae smiles, “You should tell her that.”
Tammy is in her late 20s, now. She’s always been obsessed with Biology and fashion, acting out the accents of our neighbor’s home islands, and Chipotle. Our parents were not the generation of intersections. They often drove home the idea that we could only follow one path when it came to our identities. I watched Tammy try to box herself in.
“I can style my friends on the weekends and then take AP Bio.”
“I can be a doctor and then own a boutique on the side.”
“I can open up a swimsuit line and use what I know about anatomy to make the swimsuits accessible.”
As she got older, her dreams started to meld. She is still piecing it together bit by bit, and I will fuel her imagination as often as I can, but I often wonder about our trajectory and how representation affects it. I watched my younger cousins and eventually my students struggle with initial interests because they’d never seen it or someone told them that their possible was impossible.
I’d asked them why they’d pause or dismiss a spark I’d see fill their eyes and they’d say, “People…children…folx…like me CAN’T do ______________.”
I had the privilege of growing up with parents that, despite their aligned interest in me becoming a doctor/lawyer/engineer, supported anything that I took interest in. They’d find a story, with a Black or Brown individual, and sit me in front of it. They’d push me to take in the narrative and assess whether I could truly see myself in that person’s shoes.
I mirrored their actions with my cousins and God-siblings, when I started a mentoring group at age 13. I took them to museums, parks, and plays. When my mother asked me why I wanted to do this, I said, “I want them to experience the things you show me.” I mirrored this with my friends as we navigated life and the real world. My living room sofa became the epicenter of our stalled aspirations.
I would plaster large post-its on my wall, grab a marker, and say, “Okay. Let’s plan it. Right now.”
They’d look at me stunned, “Now?”
I’m intentional about representation and nurturing reflections, as I educate our future generations, penning mirrors into the instructional material, creating connections between current events and the content, and using my own story as an artifact.
“See You Yesterday” is a mentoring session, a couch conversation, and a culturally relevant lesson all in one. While some may deem some of its themes inappropriate for younger scholars, the entire movie is filled with Easter eggs and cinematic Black magic.
The movie protagonists, Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) and C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith), are prodigies that innovate make-shift time machines in efforts to save C.J’s brother Calvin (Astro) from police brutality.
In the first few scenes, it pays homage to some of our (Gen X,Y,Z and millennial) first glimpses of science fiction. I wonder what percentage of us pretended we were on hover-boards and yelled “Great Scott” with our legs criss-crossed on plastic covered furniture, while watching “Back to the Future.” I know that I wondered why Kunta was wearing a visor the first time I saw him in Star Trek.
Michael J. Fox reads the late, great Octavia Butler’s “Kindred", a phenomenal science fiction author who only made it onto the sci-fi shelves within the last decade, while the protagonists partake in Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and “Black,” a highly acclaimed graphic novel about Blacks having superpowers.
The backdrop is Bronx High School of Science, a specialized magnet school that requires the Specialized High School Admissions Test, an academic space with only 2% Black scholars and 5% LatinX scholars. The school is adorned in possibility: blueprints, equations, a robotics lab and scholars talking casually talking about MIT and Morehouse. On the website, they also note that they have an onsite Holocaust museum.
After the first scene, scholars are seen emerging from the train in Flatbush Brooklyn, where they reside, and immediately it makes you wonder: What’s that commute like? Why do they have to travel almost an hour and a half for school? Do schools like BX Science not exist, where they live?
Flatbush, the one my grandmother has resided in for over fifty years, is vibrant in all its Caribbean splendor: vendors, mom and pop shops, bodegas, Korean markets, braiding salons, and images that remind me of Crooklyn all grown up. We are reminded of Brooklyn’s staples, through Calvin’s Dallas BBQs attire. We spent many graduations, birthdays, and more, wiping sticky sauce from our fingers and waiting excitedly for oversized drinks. Ring the Alarm by Tenor Saw, Buddy’s “Hey Up There,” and the sounds of steel pan that gentrifiers have tried to eradicate, dominate transitional scenes, bridging the multilingualism and multigenerational population of Black and Brown Brooklyn. We are brought home via a barbecue scene featuring Dominoes next to Red Stripe beers, Spelman alumna shirts with Jamaican Creole cusswords that my momma would kill me for writing in this article, and afrobeats like Olatunji’s “Oh Yay.”
Bristol, Lee, and Bailey show us the dark days of Brooklyn too: knowledge of cemetery plots like the back of our hands, harassment by police officers, mental health issues, impromptu funerals, and sometimes our inability to see that all of our children are scholars and prodigies.
We were innovators, although it was scarcely recognized. It was difficult for us to imagine the ease that Harriet the Spy had navigating her neighborhood, a high tech laboratory like Dexter, or a mechanical sofa like the one in Arnold’s boarding house, but we were luminaries.
Tammy and I, alongside many of the people we grew up with, can see ourselves in Sebastian and C.J. because we were also scientists.
“The lab” isn’t just a colloquialism for the basement and closet studios we created in our parent’s abode. We actually had labs. We were masters of turning mattresses and egg cartons into soundproof booths, connecting particle boards to chunky computers, hanging microphones from the tiles in the ceiling, finessing Cool Edit Pro and Fruity Loops. (See Nipsey Hussle’s first computer.)
My cousins, interested in the culinary and chemicals, made gourmet meals from bodega fixings. The same cousins, when we were curious dug their hands into the soil and plants in the backyard. They wanted to know how different entities reacted when they were mixed together; they dropped honeysuckle drippings onto their tongues. We stirred Horlicks and Milo, before bed, practicing for a future chemistry class. We inquired why the mix lumped at the bottom and sometimes grandma told us to “go to yuh bed.”
Sometimes the lab was a notebook or a wall filled with drawings of potential outfits, anime, comic strips, buildings, and portraits. We were Kehinde and Kara, our ideas turned lead silhouettes and vines with each stroke.
We curled into corners, invisible walls forming around us despite the family computer being in the living room, and coded our Myspace, Blackplanet, and Neopets pages to perfection.
We joined mas camps during spring and summer, waving our parents’ flags to and fro, yelling our nation’s hymns and movements. We curled our arms towards the sun to hit the right part of the pan and adjusted our costumes, so we could flail our bodies to spread color and joy.
We were writers, with makeshift offices, under covers and in spare rooms, writing in our Live Journal and Xanga.
We were and are so many things. We were scientists, like the Black kids of “See You Yesterday", with or without a garage, with or without a “Come inside/downstairs!” resounding through the home, with or without realizing our potential.
It is one thing to see your neighborhood as the backdrop for a post apocalyptic zombie takeover, your community shown as the shady part of town, or to catch a hue similar to yours doing or saying something that might relate to you. It is something else entirely to witness your exact world, splayed across a screen, beckoning eyes from all over the world to embrace your intersectionality, your struggles, your triumph, and your pain.
Master educators are ones who are able to turn their palms and instruction into mirrors, they bounce prisms of our identity across flat surfaces, they show us how our small sliver of reality is connected to the soil, statues, serenity or lack thereof.
I grew up with C.J., Sebastian, and Calvin. They played softball with us in the park, sat on the steps until the street lights came on, grabbed Taste The Tropics ice cream and jerk anything from Lawton’s, and played manhunt when we were supposed to be inside. When we were finally nudged through the doors of our homes, I watched the Sebastians, C.J.s, and Calvins place radios on their dressers, draw on the backyard steps, build knick knacks through the bars of the living room windows, concoct potions from anything they could find, innovate, innovate, innovate.
Watching “See You Yesterday” was the equivalent of taking the B46 from Utica to my grandmother’s house, where I’ve always felt at home, like hanging with the kids on the block again, and a reminder to come inside because bad things happen when it’s dark out.
Or walking home from school.
Or getting on the train.
Or talking to your friends on corners.
Or coming from a BBQ.
Despite the ongoing dispute about “See You Yesterday’s” cliffhanger ending, the film is a masterclass on representation. We stan a medium that supports our linguistic and cultural dexterity and plurality.
My company, Langston League, uses a framework to make sure that anything we create is culturally relevant and responsive. To be culturally responsive is to recognize the importance of including students' cultural references in all aspects of learning, enriching experiences and keeping your scholars engaged.
We must sustain this.
It’s important that the art we create embodies our stories and creates bridges to today. Culture is fluid and the media we internalize should aim to move with us.
I asked Tammy if she wanted me to recommend more movies, like “See You Yesterday.”
She sent a smiley and said, “Send dem’.”
I forward this message to Bristol, Lee, Bailey and all of the dope creators.
I replied to Tammy, too, “Soon come, bad gal.”
Erica Buddington is an author and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Erica is the Founder and CEO of Langston League a multi-consultant firm that designs culturally relevant instructional material and professional development. You can find out more about her at www.ericabuddington.com. You can also follow her musings and her work on Twitter and Instagram.